Responsible tourism in Iran

Tourism in Iran is such a new concept that it’s difficult to separate into responsible and irresponsible. Unlike Benidorm, Venice or Thailand, the myriad social and environmental issues in Iran have no connection to tourism, and your behaviour while visiting Iran is unlikely to offer much of a resolution.
However, responsible tourism in Iran can certainly offer less tangible benefits. Simply choosing to visit the country, cast as part of the “Axis of Evil” and an aggressive, militant state, displays open mindedness, and a willingness to discover the country for yourself – rather than depend on an increasingly biased media. Incoming tourism may also be the only chance for many ordinary Iranians to meet foreigners. By sharing a cup of sweet tea and engaging on a human level – talking about your families, your job, your fondness for kebabs – you are bridging a cultural gap and demonstrating to yourself and your hosts that we are all just human, and the vast majority of us can get along just fine.
It’s a simple lesson, and in some ways an obvious one – but also one that seems even more important to remember today than it has been for a long time.
Marianne Grimshaw, from our supplier Wild Frontiers:
“They have the very strong Islamic instinct to welcome visitors and welcome strangers so you really do feel that. A lot of [Iranian] people I spoke to said, “just because our governments aren’t friendly doesn’t mean the people aren’t.” I think they feel their government has been cutting them off for the rest of the world for quite some time. Up until 1979 they did have a fairly Western culture and that was taken away, so there are still quite strong feelings. People want to be friends with the West. Obviously, there are some that don’t – but the majority of people are very forward thinking, and believe that having contact with the West is going to be the best thing for their country.”

People & culture

The last of Iran’s nomads

Around the world, nomadic people are struggling to maintain lifestyles which stretch back centuries, as they clash with the concepts of land ownership and national borders. Nomads are frequently viewed as not contributing to society, being backward, and avoiding established systems such as taxation and formal education.

In Iran, the story is no different. Around 1.5 million nomadic people are believed to live there today, the majority being “semi-nomadic”; rather than constant movement, they spend their summers in the cooler mountains of the north, and the winters in the warmer climes close to Shiraz and the Gulf Coast. One of the largest nomadic groups is the Qashqai – a collective of different Turkic tribes who transport their tents and livestock hundreds of kilometres each year between their seasonal homes, as they have done for a thousand years. But against a backdrop of a rapidly developing Iran, they are losing grazing lands, access to water is becoming more difficult, and younger generations are lured to the cities. The government is also pursuing “assimilation” programmes in an effort to settle the tribes in permanent towns and villages, a move which would split close-knit families, see the loss of ancient traditions, and which threatens the very existence of this 400,000 strong community.
What you can do
Thanks to the fact that many Qashqai families set up camp near to Shiraz in the cooler months, visiting them is easy and many tours now incorporate a day or even an overnight stay with the community. Chatting to them through an interpreter, visitors can learn about their semi-nomadic lifestyle, their values and traditions, and share stories of their own lives too. The Qashqai receive an income from tourism, and younger members of the family are encouraged to take pride in their culture and unusual lifestyle. You can step inside the handmade felt tents, see the soft wool rugs that the Qashqai are known for, and join them for lunch.
This may seem like a small gesture, but being involved in tourism adds a kind of “value” to the Qashqai in the government’s eyes. Communities around Persepolis, for example, receive payments to help them maximise tourism in the area; were the Iranian government to see the Qashqai in the same way, they may offer financial support to them too – as well as ensuring access to grazing land and water, and stop trying to assimilate them.

Iranian law – separating fact from fiction

Unlike many countries, where there are unwritten rules regarding dress, behaviour and topics of conversation, Iran makes it all very easy for visitors by laying these codes of conduct down in the law. What in Burma or Ethiopia might be a faux pas, in Iran is a crime. But don’t panic – aside from the fact that any responsible holiday company will ensure you are well prepared, it’s difficult to cause real offence here unless you go out of your way to do so. There is no need for full burka here, Iranian women wear headscarves (roosari) – loosely covering their heads. In cities such as Tehran, it’s often styled to reveal a little hair. If yours slips enough to cause attention, you won’t find yourself arrested – it’s likely that a local woman will gesture, kindly, to indicate it needs rearranging. Walk around in a minidress, however, and the police will come running. Foreign unmarried couples are not forbidden from sharing hotel rooms – but snogging on a park bench, whether you’re married or otherwise, is not going to do you any favours. And photograph a military installation or insult Mohammed, and you’re going to be in serious trouble.
However, while Iran is restrictive by Western standards, it is more liberal than many of its Middle Eastern and Central Asian counterparts. Iranian women can drive, vote and travel alone – as well as stand for parliament (but not president). And one way in which Iranian women are doing even better than their Western counterparts is at university; Iran has one of the highest rations of female to male university students in the world, with around 60 percent of students being women – rising to 70 percent in science and engineering as of 2015.Visit a university city such as Shiraz, and you will be approached by students – most likely female – keen to practise their English, meet tourists and learn about the West’s perception of Iran, as well as keen to change that perception. History has proven repeatedly that the best way for a country to progress and to achieve equality, is for women to be educated. If Iran continues on this course, women may just end up taking back control of their lives and bodies using the best weapon available: not war, or revolution, but education.


When is a protected area not a protected area?

Iran is vast; the UK could fit inside it almost seven times, yet the population of Iran is just 80 million, leaving plenty of space for wilderness areas. Within its borders are habitats for some of the world’s last surviving Asiatic cheetahs, as well as rare Persian leopards, lynx, bears, wolves, bezoar ibex and panthers. Iran is often thought of as a vast desert, but over 10 percent of its landscape is forested, and combined with the soaring, snow-capped peaks of the Zagros and Alborz Mountain ranges and Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf coastlines, the country is much more diverse than it is given credit for.

Yet despite its enormous size, endangered species and incredible biodiversity, Iran has just 11 national parks – for comparison, the UK has 15. More worryingly, national park status is no indication that the land will be protected, despite the Iranian Environmental Preservation Law declaring that construction within national parks is illegal. The otherworldly landscapes of Kavir National Park, whose desert and steppe is sometimes referred to as “Little Africa” thanks to the hyena, cheetah, wolf, leopard and gazelle that can be found there, are under threat from oil exploration. Digging wells, building access roads and subsequent pollution pose a huge danger to the environment, while military training in the area is already causing wildlife to flee.

The Ramsar site of Lake Urmia, meanwhile, was once the largest lake in the Middle East, with 102 islands. However, drought as well as redirecting the water for agricultural purposes means that just 5-10 percent of the original water volume remains, which in turn has increased salinity. Evaporating at a rate of up to a metre per year, Lake Urmia may be little more than a salt marsh very soon, which would affect the whole climate of the region. The government has plans to channel water back into the dying lake, but its future – and that of the surrounding ecosystems – hangs in the balance.

It’s fair to say that conservation of habitats and wildlife is not high on the Iranian list of priorities – with oil, mining and development being put first. Air pollution is at notoriously dangerous levels in Iran’s cities (not helped by the availability of cheap oil); a giant air quality gauge is one of the most prominent monuments in downtown Tehran, which frequently shuts down due to dangerous pollution levels.
What you can do
National parks and tourism go hand in hand; in many destinations around the world, a successful national parks network generates income from tourism as well as elevating a country’s international image and preserving endangered species and environments. Without a tourist industry, and with a population that did not value spending time in nature, Iran had few incentives for protecting its natural heritage. But as tourism grows, more people are spending time in the national parks, with the densely forested Golestan National Park – one of Iran’s oldest – receiving increasing numbers of visitors, which in turn boosts conservation of its species, which include Persian leopards, wolves, brown bears and golden eagles. Lodges are springing up around the park, employing local people and sourcing produce and craftsmanship from the surrounding area where possible. This encourages local communities to respect the environment, as the flow of tourists depends on maintaining this wilderness. Lar National Park benefits from its proximity to Tehran; just 70km away, it is one of Iran’s most accessible national parks, and its gorgeous landscapes and lake make it a welcome retreat away from the city.
It’s worth choosing an itinerary which includes at least one of Iran’s national parks or wildlife reserves to ensure you are investing in the protection of these landscapes – and encouraging the designation of more protected areas in Iran. With any luck, it will also deter the government from seeing these vast, empty landscapes as prime sites for mining or oil exploration, and wildlife will once again begin to thrive.


Any responsible tour operator should provide detailed trip notes about travelling in Iran, which will cover the issue of how to dress, how to interact with local people and other taboo subjects. It’s best to err on the conservative side; women should keep hair tucked under their headscarves and as little skin should be shown as possible. And no public displays of affection. Alcohol and pork products are illegal, and if you are travelling during Ramadan, don’t eat or drink in public during daylight hours. There may be places you can consume food – your tour leader will let you know if so. In general, Iranian people – especially in the cities – are open minded and keen to meet foreign visitors. It is likely you will meet local people in parks or restaurants, and they will be keen to ask you questions. It’s not advisable to bring up sensitive subjects such as politics or religion – but it’s likely the person you are chatting to will want to discuss these. By all means go ahead – and keep an open mind. If you are invited into an Iranian home, it’s a nice gesture to bring pastries or flowers. It is polite to apologise for the inadequacy of the gift. When you arrive, remove your shoes at the door if your host is not wearing theirs. Iran is a largely desert nation, so please conserve water where possible. In many places the tap water is safe to drink (check with your tour leader or guide) – so bring a refillable water bottle and cut down on plastic waste if possible. When entering a mosque, all visitors will need to remove their shoes, and women will need to wear headscarves. Occasionally, more conservative dress will be required, so do check before entering.
Mike Pullman, from our supplier Wild Frontiers:
“They are very likely to bring up political issues – it happened numerous times on my trip. I was in Uzbekistan last month and that was the complete opposite, no one would discuss politics at all, our guide very much toed the party line and said the president’s great and everyone’s very happy with the president, and we have these very fair elections.... Whereas in Iran, our guide described himself as a “bad Muslim”, was very cynical about the regime and very open. I would try not to be too critical if an Iranian asks you what you think of the Iranian government, but I think most people who go there are pretty open minded and want to get behind the news headlines. Most of our visitors would agree that they find it quite a misunderstood country and visiting really drives that home. The fact that it’s been tarred as this evil nation for so long when the people you meet are liberal, interested in the West, outgoing, friendly, sociable, welcoming… this juxtaposition between its position in the global world and the actual people you meet couldn’t be more different. It’s a great country.”
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: DAVID HOLT] [Iranian woman:] [Nomadic children: Ninara] [Iranian students: Hamed Saber] [Asiatic cheetah: Behnam Ghorbani]